The solution to climate change might be in your fridge

A new study has evaluated all possible contributing factors to greenhouse gas emissions from farm to fork and come up with suggestions for citizens and municipalities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing your carbon footprint doesn’t have to mean ditching your car or other drastic measures

According to a recent report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, North American countries have the highest estimated per-capita food loss and waste globally. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions is the food we eat, and a new study by the University of Reading in the U.K. examined the entire food industry from farm to fork for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost two-thirds of the food-associated greenhouse gas waste occurs on the consumer end, including anyone that handles food, from grocery stores to restaurants and, especially, inside our own homes.

This comprehensive study considered all possible contributing factors to greenhouse gas emissions in the production of your lunch — from the farm workers' commute to the refrigerant required for storage and the electricity consumption in grocery stores. They even calculated the emissions that occur once we dispose of the food — in landfills or wastewater treatment.The results prove that our diets are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing your carbon footprint

Reducing your carbon footprint doesn't require you to ditch your car or take other drastic measures. Small lifestyle adjustments can result in significant contributions to the overall health of our planet, including Meatless Monday or forgoing steak outside of special occasions.

"It really comes down to beef consumption. If beef can be substituted with lower carbon meats, [it] would be preferable," said Dr. Eugene Mohareb, lead author and lecturer in sustainable urban systems at the University of Reading. "We found replacing, for example, [in] the U.S. case study, 25 per cent of beef consumption with chicken, resulted in a whole system emissions reduction of six per cent of all emissions."

It really comes down to beef consumption. If beef can be substituted with lower carbon meats, [it] would be preferable.- Dr. Eugene Mohareb

Waste less, save more

Food waste is a major contributing factor to greenhouse gas emissions, and according to a recent report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, North American countries have the highest estimated per-capita food loss and waste globally.

"So in Canada, [the CEC report] suggests it's around [396 kilograms or 873 pounds] per person per year. They go on to highlight that's around 40 per cent of all food that is purchased in households," said Mohareb. "There might be things that we can do in the home. There's a USDA app that's available [called FoodKeeper], for example, that allows you to set reminders when you buy perishable foods. And if you focus on those high carbon intensity foods, such as your animal products, and your meat, and your dairy, etc., that'll address a lot of the emissions associated with your diet."

A bonus to wasting less food and helping the environment? It saves you money — an estimated $1,400 per year.

Estimates of greenhouse gas reduction potential of various measures associated with the U.S. food system, relative to 2010 emissions. (Eugene A. Mohareb / Environmental Science & Technology)

Municipalities can do more to encourage greener practices

Upwards of 83 per cent of the North American population lives in urban centres, which are responsible for most of the food waste. University of Reading researchers concluded that composting is not the best way to deal with organic waste. Instead, municipalities should implement an organic sorting system to deal with food waste separately.

Anaerobic digestion is a much more carbon friendly solution that includes a series of biological processes where microorganisms break down biodegradable material. It's also cost-effective because one of the end products is biogas, which can be sold back into the utility supply for electricity, heat, renewable natural gas and transportation fuels.

Researchers also have suggestions for how to incentivize greener food practices, including a tax on beef, which would likely work, but might not be entirely realistic.

At the very least, municipalities should focus on public awareness because if people understand that they can save money, improve their health, and protect the planet by making a few small adjustments to reduce food waste, then everyone wins.

About the Author

Torah Kachur

Science Columnist

Torah Kachur is the syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One. Torah received her PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Alberta and now teaches at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. She's the co-creator of scienceinseconds.com.